A state government said in a letter seen by Reuters that 19 victims had been found dumped in some Indian rivers, the first official acknowledgement of an unsettling practise that it said stemmed from insecurity and fear of disease in villages.
Images of bodies floating down the Ganges river, which Hindus regard as holiest, have stunned a country grappling with the world’s worst outbreak of infections.
Although the media has attributed the recent uptick in such bodies to the pandemic, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of 240 million people, has yet to officially announce the cause of the deaths.
“The administration has information that bodies of those who have succumbed to COVID-19 or any other disease are being thrown into rivers instead of being disposed of as per proper rituals,” a senior state official, Manoj Kumar Singh, said in a May 14 letter to district heads that was reviewed by Reuters.
“As a result, bodies have been recovered from rivers in many places.”
Singh confirmed the letter to Reuters but said autopsies on four to five bodies in the state’s disrict of Ghazipur had not revealed virus infection.
“The bodies are decomposed, so I am not sure in this state it can be found out about corona positive,” he said in a text message.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged officials on Saturday to beef up rural healthcare resources and boost surveillance as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas, after ravaging the cities.
Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil or Pakistan, has been badly hit by India’s dramatic second surge of COVID-19. Health experts say many cases are going undetected in the state’s villages, home to the bulk of its people.
According to Singh’s memo, among the possible causes of the increase in dumping are a scarcity of funds for supplies such as firewood for cremation, religious practises in certain countries, and families leaving victims due to fear of the disease.
He instructed village officials to insure that no corpses were dumped into water and announced that the state government would pay poor families 5,000 rupees ($68) each to cremate or bury the dead.
The state has also asked police to patrol rivers to stop the practice.
For nearly two weeks, India has been officially announcing about 4,000 daily deaths from the epidemic, but health analysts believe the toll is likely much higher due to reasons such as inadequate monitoring in rural areas.
The increase in deaths has caused backlogs at crematoriums around the country and increased the expense of last rites.
On Saturday, Uttar Pradesh spokesman Navneet Sehgal dismissed media claims that up to 2,000 bodies of potential virus patients had been taken from rivers in the state and neighbouring Bihar in recent days.
“We keep recovering 10 to 20 bodies every now and then,” Sehgal told Reuters, adding that some riverside villages did not cremate their dead due to Hindu traditions during some periods of religious significance.